Humans Have a Long History of Making ‘Very Bad Decisions’ to Save Animals

If we want to maintain a livable Earth, we must prepare radical measures to safeguard biodiversity. And we will need to grapple with some queasiness about extending humankind’s manipulation of “natural” systems, when our track record as stewards is so poor.

We should proceed with extreme caution. As genetics and other biosciences race ahead, they need help from a globally diverse cast of ethicists, economists, political scientists and community leaders to ensure there is an equitable, science-based system of governance around which new technologies get deployed where, when and by whom.

An ill-conceived gene drive, for example, could potentially do far more harm than good, on a global scale. And there’s no international regulation to prevent the premature deployment of gene drive in the wild, leaving it to individual governments, powerful funding organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and scientists themselves to pump the brakes and balance the prevention of risky interventions with the need to support basic research. “We need the World Health Organization to establish a registry for all gene drive experiments that requires scientists to detail safeguards and find a local community who agrees to guide the research before experiments begin,” Mr. Esvelt said.

In her decades of experience working on conservation, Ms. Shaw has consistently found that the most successful efforts are those that integrate local communities, giving the people who live in proximity to endangered animals a stake in their well-being and agency in how the animals are protected. Any new technology, she says, “needs to be democratized, so you don’t have one culture choosing which modifications or interactions are most important.”

On Aug. 16, Colossal Biosciences, a Dallas-based start-up, announced a plan to “de-extinct” the Tasmanian tiger, a few months after the company snagged $60 million in investment to give the Jurassic Park treatment to the woolly mammoth.

Several of the scientists I interviewed for this story were highly skeptical of these plans. Aside from the ethical issues around introducing a species whose impact on existing ecosystems, and its own likelihood of survival, are unknown, there’s the question of money: How much progress could $60 million make on the study of gene drives, or the old-fashioned route of buying vulnerable real estate?

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